Even before the Internet and the Web became as commonplace as television and telephones, urban legends and silly (or scary) myths made their way across the culture, from kid to kid, parent to parent, co-worker to co-worker. What kid in the ’70s didn’t wonder if little Mikey really did die from eating Pop Rocks and soda? Word of mouth can have a powerful influence on a brand. While Mikey (aka John Gilchrist) is still alive and well, rumors of his demise caused Pop Rocks sales to suffer so greatly that General Foods took it off the market in 1983.
The preponderance of e-mail and Web sites in this new millennium have made the creation and spread of misinformation possible on a scale previously unimaginable. (Neiman Marcus cookie recipe, anyone?) For the most part, e-mails with urgent calls to action, exciting opportunities to get free trips from Bill Gates, or warnings about the potential for organ theft while on vacation are exclusively the bastion of the new and the inexperienced. But in recent years one much more subtle bit of misinformation has taken hold, not just among the gullible and the naïve, but also among some of the most tech savvy people in the world. Like a modern day game of operator being played over mobile phones with poor reception, the false notion that the brand name “Wi-Fi” is short for “wireless fidelity” has spread to such an extent that even industry leader EarthLink recently included it in a press release. And EarthLink is not alone: Wikipedia, several online dictionaries (including our own Webopedia ), About.com, and the U.S. military all got it wrong, too. [Even this site got it wrong a few times in the early days — the proof is out there! — Editor.]
The truth is, Wi-Fi isn’t short for anything—and it never was.
Here’s what happened:
In 1999, a handful of industry leaders formed a global non-profit organization with the goal of “driving the adoption of a single worldwide-accepted standard for high-speed wireless local area networking.” They called themselves the “Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA).”
Because ‘IEEE 802.11’ is a bit of a mouthful, one of WECA’s first tasks was to develop a more memorable, user-friendly name for the wireless standard. To that end, they hired powerhouse branding company Interbrand — the company responsible for naming Prozac, Celebrex, the Mitsubishi Eclipse, and the Nissan Xterra, just to name a few — to come up with a list of names that could be used in place of IEEE 802.11b.
Thirteen names were presented to WECA, including Skybridge, Torchlight, and Flyover. Despite how lame these names sound in retrospect, Interbrand is actually very good at its job. Its naming strategy for IBM, for instance, saved the company more than $4,000,000 in one year. And among forgettable names such as Transpeed and Elevate, there was, obviously, a winner: Wi-Fi.
Interestingly enough, when the WECA board got together to discuss the names, the one that received the highest score was Trapeze (now the name of a Wi-Fi infrastructure company). Close behind and tied for second were Dragonfly, Hornet and Wi-Fi. Had any of the other top contenders won out, rather than using a Wi-Fi-enabled device, today you would be using your Trapeze- or Dragonfly-enabled device to check e-mail or download a video. Trapeze, of course, would not be considered “short for wireless fidelity.” Neither would “Dragonfly.” That’s because they’re not. They would stand in for IEEE 802.11—just like Wi-Fi does.
Phil Belanger, analyst with Novarum and a co-founder of WECA (which later became the Wi-Fi Alliance), remembers those meetings well.
“Some of the names were hilarious and horrible,” recalls Belanger. “We almost said, ‘Go back to the drawing board.’ Wi-Fi won out. When we saw it with the yin-yang logo, we thought, ‘Yeah, this is good.’ One of the funny things was — this may sound silly now — but at the time, it was going from two to eleven megabits. That’s really fancy wireless stuff, woo! Maybe half of the names were trying to underscore the idea of speed. You can imagine how dated that would be now if we’d selected one of those.”
Nowhere in the notes from those meetings—or in Belanger’s recollection—was Wi-Fi intended to be short for “wireless fidelity.” Put simply, since there is no such thing as wireless fidelity, nothing could ever be short for it.
The current confusion seems to stem from a brief period early in the days of the Wi-Fi Alliance when a regrettable tag line was added that stated, “The Standard for Wireless Fidelity.” This was not part of the original name and was not created by Interbrand, but it was added as an afterthought in an attempt to help users make sense of the new and somewhat nonsensical word, “Wi-Fi.”
“The tagline is incorrect on so many levels,” says Belanger. “To say ‘the standard’ broke with the charter. We weren’t creating standards — we were promoting an existing standard. One of the motivations was that we were trying to expand the use of WLANs to the home market, so this notion of ‘wireless fidelity,’ some people felt like if they’re going to transfer audio and video around their house, then maybe that has some of the appeal. We have this name Wi-Fi. What two words have “wi” and “fi” starting them? Maybe it can help support our goal?”
By the end of 2000, the pointless tagline was dropped and the term “wireless fidelity” was supposed to disappear into the ether. But somehow, as the Wi-Fi brand gained traction, so did the mistaken notion that it was “short for wireless fidelity.” Despite the fact that Wikipedia claims the Wi-Fi Alliance still uses the term “wireless fidelity” in its white papers, there are only two documents in the Wi-Fi Alliance online knowledge base that use it. They are press releases from the spring and summer of 2000, historical documents that preserve a regrettable phase, much like the photos that preserve our most unfortunate hairstyles or wardrobe choices long after we’ve moved on.
It’s been roughly seven years since “wireless fidelity” was officially used or propagated in any way by the Wi-Fi Alliance, and yet, somehow, it has spread among the populous to the point that even industry insiders—who ought to know better—perpetrate it in press releases and on Web sites. There’s even a company that calls itself Ubiquitous Wireless Fidelity (or “uWiFi” for short).
How could this happen? How could a term that has no meaning and no definition (that, according to John Ferrari, an early member of WECA and current President and CEO of LightPort, was dreamt up over a pitcher of margaritas at a Chevy’s restaurant in Mountain View, California in 1999) be turning up seven years later as a presumably bona fide term in so many places? Is this the wireless industry’s Nieman Marcus Cookie Recipe?
Frank Hanzlik, the current managing director for the Wi-Fi Alliance, was not at the meetings where the Interbrand names were discussed, but he was a member of WECA and he is now entrusted with protecting and perpetuating the Wi-Fi brand. He confirms that “wireless fidelity” has no meaning, is not part of the trademark, and is not used or encouraged to be used by the Wi-Fi Alliance. However, he feels no need to aggressively correct those who use it, since what’s most important to his organization is simply that “Wi-Fi” continues to be a household name.
“In the very early days of building the brand, there was a linkage to the hi-fi chronology,” says Hanzlik. “It was successful in creating a positive connotation of what that could mean to a user. Over the last seven years, the term Wi-Fi has become quite ubiquitous in the developed part of the world. We just try to keep it simple and use only Wi-Fi.”
“We declared victory when we made the Merriam-Webster dictionary,” says Hanzlik. “Now we encourage everyone to use Wi-Fi versus ‘wireless LAN,’ because it resonates more with folks — but we do enforce the Wi-Fi Certified and the Wi-Fi Alliance brands and logos.”
Unlike what happened to Pop Rocks in the ’70s, misinformation has had the opposite effect on Wi-Fi. The brand continues to grow by leaps and bounds.
“It’s always great to think back to those early days,” says Hanzlik. “Seven years in some cases seems like a long, long time. But in many industries, it’s really remarkable what we’ve accomplished in that period of time. We sold 200 million units last year, and we’re on track for 500 million in a few years. It’s really remarkable growth, and exciting.”
For the record, “Wi-Fi” is always hyphenated, with a capital “w” and a capital “f.” It’s not short for anything. And Webster’s got it right.